At least 400 officials at 50 leading government agencies, including the Pentagon and the Treasury, bought and sold stocks of major U.S. companies that were the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The timing was "exquisite," particularly with respect to top-level information about the origin of the pandemic, its spread and the government response in the form of trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief and the stabilization of the financial markets. That's the conclusion of the Journal's analysis, based on a timeline of official COVID-19 events, financial disclosure forms and emails obtained through public record requests.
"Federal officials working on the government response to COVID-19 made well-timed trades when the pandemic began — both as the markets plunged and as they rallied," WSJ writes. "In January 2020, the U.S. public was largely unaware of the threat posed by the virus spreading in China, but health officials were on high alert and girding for a crisis."
WSJ delved into the investment trades of a number of high-profile Washington officials, including former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao; Hugh Auchincloss, the principal deputy director at a division of the National Institutes of Health, whose boss was Dr. Anthony Fauci; and Stephen Redd, deputy director for public health service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As information about the extent of COVID-19's danger to the public health and economy became known, along with the massive relief measures the government took to prevent the U.S. from slipping into a depression, these and other officials bought and sold out of companies and stock sectors, via equities and mutual funds, that were the most impacted.
In March 2020 when numerous government agencies were working furiously to prevent COVID-19 deaths and prop up the economy and the markets, Chao purchased more than $600,000 in two stock funds. Meanwhile, her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was the Senate Majority Leader overseeing negotiations over the COVID-19 stimulus bill.
A Treasury Department official bought shares in Boeing and General Electric, which were helped by a government loan package, and which were two of the major suppliers of ventilators.
Even though former President Donald Trump did not sign the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, until March 27, 2020, nine days prior, the Treasury Department made public the details that it wanted to see in the bill, including $50 billion in loans for airlines and $450 billion for "severely distressed sectors" and small businesses.
Two days later, Treasury domestic finance counselor Jeff Goettman bought 15 stocks, including Boeing and GE for between $29,015 and $260,000 — before the ratification of CARES.
On Jan. 24, 2020, when the CDC reported the first COVID-19 case in the U.S., Auchincloss sold between $15,000 and $50,000 of a stock mutual fund. A few days later, Auchincloss sold two more mutual funds and shares in Chevron.
Each holding Auchincloss sold fell sharply in the steep market downturn of Feb. 20, 2020. On that day and over the next week, equity markets suffered their biggest single-week decline since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Redd learned of the approaching danger of COVID at the end of January and sold between $195,005 and $500,000 in stocks and bonds.
As WSJ puts it, "that was just the beginning."
About 240 officials at health agencies and the Pentagon, which was in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, owned stock in the drug, manufacturing and biotechnology companies that won COVID-19 contracts in 2020 and 2021. Filing disclosures show the value of their holdings between $9 million and $28 million.
Another 160 officials at 50 agencies bought stocks in travel and leisure companies that received billions in federal aid, according to the WSJ analysis — which looked at the amount of the purchases, their timing and the volume compared to other times outside of the pandemic's spread in 2020 and 2021.
WSJ examined the financial disclosures of 12,000 officials between 2016 and 2021.
Top-level government officials who were privy to information that the general public did not have also made stock and mutual fund purchases timed with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's written statement on Feb. 28, 2020 that the central bank would cut interest rates to save the economy. The Fed cut rates down to nearly zero.
In the seven days after that statement, Fed and Treasury officials made twice as many trades as they had in the week the year prior.
Likewise, at least one of 10 companies that Trump announced on March 13, 2020 that the U.S. government would partner with to develop nationwide COVID-19 testing were holdings of roughly 300 federal officials at that time, according to financial disclosures. Those companies included Target Corp., Walmart Inc., CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens Boots Alliance.
WSJ contacted the principals and spokespeople for the agencies at which they work. Many of the principals, including Goettman, declined to comment. A spokesman for Chao said her trades were made on the advice of financial professionals. Redd said the trades he disclosed were in his wife's account and made by a financial adviser, and that he had no prior knowledge of the trades.
The CDC and the health agencies did not respond to requests for comment. The remaining agencies either said they were not responsible for monitoring these trades or that they met their ethics requirements, which primarily cover the types of stocks state officials can trade, not when they can trade them.
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